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Are Software Developers Miserable?

A new survey attempts to quantify the unhappiness of programmers.

According to survey results released earlier this month, software developers are on average a "slightly happy" group of workers. For employers, this is slightly good news as the happiness—or lack of unhappiness—of workers is naturally, obviously tied to productivity. The findings are described in a paper posted last month to the arXiv preprint server and are slated to be presented in June at the Evaluation and Assessment in Software Engineering Conference in Sweden.


"A practice that has emerged recently is to promote ourishing happiness among workers in order to enact the happy-productive worker thesis," Daniel Graziotin and colleagues write in the aforementioned paper. "Notable Silicon Valley companies and inuential startups are well known for their perks to developers. Recognizing the happiness of all stakeholders involved in producing software is essential to software company success."

This is by now a cultural trope, of course: the coddled software engineer, toiling in between catered lunches and on-site massages while pulling in a comfortable six-figure salary. For talented and employable developers, it remains a seller's market. Indeed, happiness is crucial for retention in such a market, but the survey was a bit more interested in the idea of productivity—maximizing your HR investments in terms of both software quantity and quality.

Graziotin and his team found their survey subjects via Github. Contact information was found by mining archived data for past public Github events, where email addresses are apparently more plentiful. They wound up with 33,200 records containing developer locations, contact information, and employers. They took a random sampling from this dataset and wound up with about 1,300 valid survey responses. (94 percent of respondents were male, which is bleak as fuck.)

Survey responses were scored according to the SPANE-B metric, a standard tool used in psychology to assess "affect," defined as total negative feelings subtracted from total positive feelings. It ranges from -24 to 24. The mean score found in the developer happiness survey was 9.05. Slightly happy. The minimum was -16, while the maximum was 24. So, even in the worst cases, employees weren't totally miserable, whereas in the best cases employees weren't miserable at all. That has to count for something.


The reasons for programmer unhappiness are summarized in the table below.

It's interesting that the first factor on the list is something that's just inherent to the job. Solving problems is the job, really. And, yeah, you get stuck. But getting unstuck—figuring a hard thing out—also happens to be a highlight of the job. If it wasn't, I don't think there would nearly the amount of talent in the industry just because smart people pursue challenges.

So, no, programmers aren't miserable at all. "This does not mean that software developers are happy to the point that there is no need to intervene on their unhappiness," Graziotin and co. conclude. "On the contrary, we have shown that unhappiness is present, caused by various factors and some of them could easily be prevented. Our observations and other studies show that unhappiness has a negative effect both for developers personally and on development outcomes."

More massages, please.